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Good Work—Edition Nº 28

A hand-curated newsletter devoted to exploring how we choose to spend the 90,000 hours that will make up our careers.
Rachel Jepsen
▪︎ 7 minutes read time

🎶 I Am Ahab by Mastadon

Our brave hero prepares to face the world of work.

“Clarity means, among other things, to know how the words come to meaning / to experience how the words come to meaning."George Oppen*

You can read the future, you can read someone’s face, you can read music, you can “read-only.” To read shares an Indo-European root with the Old Saxon radan, meaning “to advise, to plan, to arrange”; with Middle Low German’s raden, meaning “to rule, to predict, to relate,” and German’s raten: “to guess.” A variant Old and Middle English form, rede, still in use today, has senses ranging from “to counsel” to “deliverance.” A read cognate in Sanskrit, radh, is the root form of radhnoti, meaning “to achieve, to accomplish.”

In Moby-Dick, Ishmael, on the countenance of the sperm whale, tells the reader, “I put that brow before you. Read it if you can.” The verb here is triplet in meaning: to look upon, to discern, to foretell. Who will solve the riddle of this creature? The word riddle shares with read an ancestor in raedan, which in the Old English meant (like rede) “to counsel.” The oldest forms of riddle in English referred to anything whose meaning was deliberately masked. Riddle as a problem to be interpreted or puzzled out emerged at the end of the 14th century, right after read gained the meaning of “to study,” an act which seeks to undo riddles in order to know, to understand.

This is the meaning of “reading” that gives us so much anxiety today. If we read to solve a riddle—to interpret “meaning” correctly—we pull back out of fear that we could interpret wrongly. Incorrectly. Bad. I urge you, reader, to get away from this idea. Neither reading nor writing are about solving riddles—they are about sussing riddles out, locating a question that needs to be asked, both writer and reader puzzling their way through it, together. About his short stories and poems, William Carlos Williams wrote, “They were written in the form of a conversation which I was partaking in. We were in it together.”*

My favorite use of the verb, that thing you do when you fumble over the riddle and feel like you need to start over or just stop and turn away? “Read on.”

This Week

Reading rainbows

  • “We must not attempt to freeze language, or to pretend it is a dead thing that must be revered, but we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time.” Neil Gaiman on reading, empathy, freedom, daydream, and the expanding possible, at Brain Pickings.
  • “We get there when we read.” Explore “honest lies,” melons, wonder, the liminal, a pirate supply store in the Mission, blue whales, and why kids are the most serious audience with children’s writer Mac Barnett in his tender, funny, necessary TedX talk, “Why a good book is an open door.”
  • Up for debate: “[What] classifies as ‘work’ is often defined by the quality of your leadership.” Shane Parrish rightly calls out process over product (a topic I’ve written about for Good Work), in, “Hey, Bossman, Reading Books IS Work.” But do all good things have to be framed as work to be worth doing?
  • Finally, a non-judgmental take on deep, physical reading over online skimming, and the potential for a future “bi-literate” brain. A brief interview at The Verge with Maryanne Wolf, the neuroscientist and author of Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World.

In tech/reading news

  • “It is not and was never intended to be a book.” Also at The Verge, read up on the new lawsuit against Amazon—book publishers say Audible’s AI-driven speech-to-text feature violates copyright law. In other words, the kind of v exciting topic we get into at Holloway parties. (Seriously, the implications are major. What happens to intellectual property when artificial intelligence is involved? And what “simple English word” will Authors Guild President Doug Preston use to describe Audible’s actions?)

That’s Good Work for this week. Looking forward to what’s next.

Rachel and the Holloway team

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